The United Kingdom has cut its aid to Syria by nearly half over the past two years, in a move branded “deeply concerning” by aid agencies.
At the Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region conference Tuesday, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab announced the U.K. would be providing “at least £205 million [$281 million] to the Syria crisis this year, bringing our total commitment since 2012 to over £3.7 billion.”
The United States also fell $100 million short of its 2020 donation. The cuts came as other donors stepped up their game, with Germany announcing a contribution of €1.7 billion ($2 billion) over two years. A total of $4.4 billion was raised for 2021, with $2 billion promised for 2022.
The funding the U.K. has given to Syria crisis relief in recent years has significantly dipped, despite calls for increased funding from donors amid the hardships of the COVID-19 pandemic and growing food insecurity.
According to a United Nations spokesperson, the U.K. donated £400 million to the Syria crisis in 2019. At last year’s conference, the U.K. pledged £300 million, meaning today’s announcement was 32% lower than what was announced in 2020. An additional £100 million was donated in 2020 after that conference, but further U.K. funding to the crisis this year will be strained because of pressures on the country’s aid budget, which is in the painful process of reducing from 0.7% to 0.5% of national income.
The decision was met with dismay by NGOs. A letter signed by 10 organizations working on the ground in the country said: “Cutting aid to Syria by a third is devastating, and the impact on the Syrian people will be devastating. … The government is turning its back on the Syrian people in their time of need.”
“Syrians could pay a heavy price for these cuts, including the 210,000 people who rely on food assistance paid for by UK Aid,” warned David Miliband, president at the International Rescue Committee NGO.
All eyes will be on the U.K., as its aid cuts begin to bite.
“Syria is on the brink of the worst hunger crisis in its history,” he said. “Despite the UK’s famine envoy [Nick Dyer] warning that ‘preventing famine is a choice’, the UK’s choice has been to turn away. These cuts occur just as the number of food insecure people in Syria has risen to record levels, with 60% of the population now going hungry.”
The reduced aid could also mean “nearly half a million children missing out on education,” according to Kevin Watkins, CEO at Save the Children UK.
Criticizing the decision, Jean-Michel Grand, executive director at Action Against Hunger UK, said it was “unacceptable given the sheer scale of the needs in the region,” adding that “in 10 years of conflict, the situation has never been worse.”
Grand also criticized the broader approach by the U.K. to aid and development.
“If humanitarian aid is no longer a departmental priority, then the government should explain why. Taxpayers have a right to know where their money is going, and currently these decisions are subject to little or no scrutiny,” he said. “I implore the U.K. government to rethink these decisions and to be open and honest with the sector. The ongoing secrecy is seriously impeding our operations and complicating an already difficult situation.”
A Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office spokesperson defended the contribution, saying the U.K. was proud of helping millions of Syrians with food, clean water, health care, and education.
“The U.K.’s response so far is our largest to a single humanitarian crisis ever,” the spokesperson said. “We are using our position at the U.N. Security Council to demand greater aid access in Syria, to drive support for the U.N.-led peace process, and impose tough sanctions on [Syrian President Bashar] Assad supporters.”
Update, March 30, 2021: This article has been updated with final pledging figures, a new number of signatories to the NGO letter, and comments from an FCDO spokesperson.